Grad students compete to boil down 80,000-word thesis into three-minute pitch

UAlberta 3MT competition showcases promising research in an audience-friendly format.


Michiko Maruyama knows that explaining a complicated procedure like open heart surgery to a child is complicated. But she also knows that for a child, seeing is believing.

That’s why the young woman is doing her residency in cardiac surgery—while also completing a master’s in industrial design.

Maruyama is designing education resources, or toys, to help young patients understand cardiac surgery and health. Some of her work includes 3-D models of hearts, a doll that helps teach children about heart defects, and origami paper models, like her sternotomy teddy bear, that families can print to prepare for surgery or a hospital stay.

“I’ve always been a child at heart. Even now as an adult, I love to play and create. I chose to come here because I wanted to integrate design and medicine,” said Maruyama.

She said toys just make her heart happy. So why not share that happiness with children who need to repair theirs?

It’s innovative thinking like this that Heather Zwicker says is changing lives.

“We know that the work our students do has cultural, social, economic and environmental benefits for all of Alberta,” said the dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research.

Maruyama is one of 15 graduate students who will be taking part in the Three Minute Thesis this week as part of Grad Research Impact Week, from April 9 to 13.

The competition is meant to take a researcher’s thesis—which can run to 80,000 words—and present it in three minutes or less, with just one slide.

“It’s about teaching our students how to start conversations about the work they do and make it accessible for a non-academic audience,” said Zwicker. “The work they do is valuable and has applications outside the walls of academia. We need to share it with the world.”

Another student who will be competing is Xiaohul Mao. She moved from China to Edmonton to improve the efficiency and sustainability of the oil and gas industry through her research on new chemical interactions, all while working in English for the first time.

Then there’s Erin MacDonald, who writes slam poetry about the beauty she sees in the Canadian North—and the fear that climate change may destroy it all—while spending summers in northern streams collecting samples to test and unlock the secrets of permafrost and its degradation through global warming.

“These graduate students are the innovators of today and the leaders of tomorrow,” said Zwicker.

The U of A 3MT finals will take place April 11 at 5:30 p.m. in Convocation Hall. The event will also be livestreamed. The first-place winner will compete at the western regional competition on April 27 in Regina.